Sir John Richardson, surgeon, physician, sailor, explorer, navigator, natural historian, ichthyologist, and scholar died on the 5th of June, 1865.
Sir John Richardson took part in Sir John Franklin’s first two voyages to the Canadian Arctic and during those voyages, Richardson surveyed more of that wilderness than any other explorer. On Franklin’s first Arctic expedition, if it hadn’t been for the efforts of Richardson, the entire party would have perished. Later, accompanied by Dr. John Rae, who was yet another notable Scottish explorer, Richardson took command of an expedition to search for the unfortunate Franklin. It seems like John was a popular name for explorers. In any event, it wasn’t until Rae returned, in 1853, that the mystery of Franklin’s fate was solved, albeit leading to controversy and the denigration of Rae. Richardson is famous for his major work, ‘The Natural History of the Arctic Regions’, which established him as one of the foremost biologists of his time.
A true generalist, Richardson was also an expert in ichthyology and described forty-three still-accepted genera and over two hundred new species of fish. Ichthyology is the branch of scientific zoology that deals with the study of the physiology, history, economic importance, etc., of fishes. The word comes from the Ancient Greek for fish, which was (is) ‘ikthus’ and is made up of the prefix ‘ichthyo-’ and the suffix ‘-logy’, which originates in loanwords from Greek, typically via Latin or French and German, where the suffix is an integral part of the word loaned. Common examples today, where the suffix has come to represent a ‘branch of learning’ would be: astrology, from ‘astrologia’; insectology from ‘insectologie’; and terminology, from ‘Terminologie’.
John Richardson was born in Dumfries on the 5th of November, 1787, the eldest of twelve children. He attended Dumfries Grammar School with Robert Burns’ oldest son, whose father influenced John towards literary tastes that lasted all his life. When he was fourteen, he was apprenticed to his uncle, James Mundell, a surgeon in Dumfries, and later to Dr Samuel Shortridge. He attended the medical school of the University of Edinburgh, from 1801 to 1804, studying botany, geology, and Greek, in addition to the usual subjects of anatomy, chemistry, materia medica, and therapeutics.
From 1804 to 1806 Richardson was a house surgeon at the Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary, and in 1806–7 completed his qualification at Edinburgh. His teachers at Edinburgh included some famous figures in a period when its medicine was the model for the world. Upon obtaining his licence, Richardson joined the Royal Navy and went to London, where he became a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. Richardson served on board six ships during the Napoleonic wars and saw action in the Baltic, off Portugal, in the Mediterranean, and off Africa. In 1814, he was appointed surgeon to the Royal Marines in North America.
After the War of 1812–14 Richardson went on half pay and returned to Edinburgh to complete his doctorate. Besides medical subjects, he took botany and mineralogy with Robert Jameson, the geologist. He graduated MD, in 1816, offering a thesis on yellow fever, and set up a practice in Leith. This wasn’t too successful, because of the post-war surplus of physicians.
Richardson took part in Sir John Franklin’s first two voyages to the Canadian Arctic. On the first expedition, between 1819 and 1822, he held the post of surgeon-naturalist-mineralogist. Travelling 1,350 miles in 1820, the group wintered at Fort Enterprise on Great Bear Lake, before continuing down the Coppermine River by canoe, in the summer of 1821, to reach the Arctic Ocean and subsequently, Melville Sound. On their return to Fort Enterprise they suffered from famine and cold, and would have perished except for the efforts of Richardson and a seaman called Hepburn. At one point, they existed for several weeks on lichen, which Richardson said was extremely nauseous and produced bowel complaints. One other significant event occurred when Richardson was compelled to execute a member of the party who had murdered midshipman Robert Hood. They were rescued by the Indian Akaitcho and made it to the Great Slave Lake by June 1822, having travelled some 5,550 miles, much of it through unexplored country.
In 1824, Richardson accompanied Franklin on his second Arctic expedition as surgeon, naturalist, and second in command. This time they wintered on Great Bear Lake and, in 1826, went to the mouth of the Mackenzie River. Whilst Franklin explored the coast westward, Richardson, working in two boats with eleven men, mapped the coast eastward back to the Coppermine River, a journey of 900 miles. On his return Richardson wrote his major work ‘Fauna Borealis Americana’, or ‘The Natural History of the Arctic Regions’, which established him as one of the foremost biologists of his time.
Richardson went back to the Canadian Arctic in 1848, when he was 60 years old, in command of an expedition to search for Franklin, who had gone missing in search of the Northwest Passage. Accompanied by Dr. John Rae, Richardson travelled to Cape Kendall, abandoned the boats at Icy Cove and went overland to winter at Fort Confidence on Great Bear Lake. They never found Franklin, nor any trace of his ships. It wasn’t until Rae returned, in 1853, that the mystery of Franklin’s fate was solved. His ships, ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’, had been crushed by the ice and he and his men had tried to return by foot, but ill-prepared for such a trek, they all perished.
Richardson was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1825 and was knighted in 1846. Apart from his explorations, Richardson spent most of his working life as Senior Physician at the Haslar Naval Hospital in Gosport. Although it was never formally organized, Sir John Richardson also belonged to a group of famous Arctic explorers, which came to be known as the ‘Arctic Committee’ (or the ‘Arctic Council’). Richardson advised Charles Darwin on matters of Arctic ecology and the taxonomy of Arctic animals and thus contributed to the early development of Darwin’s ideas. Richardson was also a friend of Florence Nightingale.
Richardson was also a key member of the Strickland Committee, which set the rules of zoological nomenclature. His name is perpetuated by numerous plants, fish, birds, and mammals, including Richardson’s ground squirrel, and by such geographical features as the Richardson Mountains, River, Lake and Bay in Canada. In 1855, Sir John Richardson retired to Grasmere, at Lancrigg, in the English Lakes, which is where he died ten years later on the 5th of June. He is buried at St Oswald’s Church in Grasmere.